Joan Rivers (American Jewish Women of a Certain Age)


Caustic and kind, deprecating and self-deprecating Joan Rivers was like a lot of American Jewish women her age.  I know people like her, without necessarily the same public vulgarity which was her special genius. They put up with men and turned on its head God knows how much grief and bullshit to create their own power and the power of their personae. Smartly put together and physically energetic, what’s powerful and funny about women like her is the facility with wit and words, the straightforward, honest and withering, no-bullshit eye as the world falls under the discerning gaze of an older person’s critical judgment, and the ability to pass that judgement over everyone and anything with an economy of words. Style, taste, and money are part of that power. Accompanied by bagpipes, the last performance of Joan Rivers was at a synagogue, the big Temple Emannuel on 5th Avenue.

This bit from the New York Times caught my eye. Directing her funeral, she wrote:

“I want my funeral to be a big showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action,” the paragraph-long directive said. “I want paparazzi and I want publicists making a scene! I want it to be Hollywood all the way. I don’t want some rabbi rambling on.” So after reading from Ecclesiastes, Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson told the invitation-only audience of mourners that he was not about to be that rabbi. More than an hour of tributes and reminiscences followed from friends who occasionally found themselves turning to Rabbi Davidson, the synagogue’s senior rabbi, as if to say not “Can we talk?” — one of the phrases Ms. Rivers made famous — but “Can we talk like that here?” after uttering language not usually heard in a place of worship. 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Joan Rivers (American Jewish Women of a Certain Age)

  1. Joan Rivers Jewish Stories says:

    Joan Rivers – Pears and Caviar

    If Rivers identifies in any way as a Jewish performer, it’s in the emphasis she places on survival — a skill she first learned from her immigrant parents.

    “They both had to flee Russia because of the revolution, but my father left because his family was so poor, and my mother left because her family was rich — ‘court Jews’ who sold fur and bricks to the czarist army,” she says.

    “My mother was only 6 years old when she left, but she remembered servants carrying big silver platters with pears stuffed with caviar in for dinner,” Rivers adds. “And then when her family came to America they were desperately poor, and my grandfather couldn’t take it. He went back to Russia and died of starvation in St. Petersburg. It was my grandmother who made the transition to life in America. And it was only in America that my parents could have met and married.”By the time Joan was growing up in Larchmont, N.Y., her father had become a physician and a founder of the town’s first synagogue, which initially met in the local firehouse. The young Joan loved to perform but was even more eager to please her parents and pursue “everything a nice Jewish girl was supposed to do.” She earned an English degree from Barnard College in 1954 and married a Jewish businessman but was “completely miserable,” she says. She divorced him six months later, and then announced that she intended to pursue acting.

    “My father truly thought I was mad and threatened to have me committed,” she says.

    “I left home at that point, and I didn’t talk to my parents for a year — including Yom Kippur, which was awful,” Rivers continues. “I was all alone, but I had an Italian boyfriend, and he just drove me around until we found a temple that would let me in without a ticket. God bless this little temple in the Bronx that welcomed me in.”

    JOAN RIVERS/Pears and Caviar
    1975 Celebrity Kosher Cookbook by Marily Hall & Rabbi Jerome Cutl

    A Triumph Over Circumstances

    After Melissa was born, I wanted to know everything I could about feeding a child. The doctor told me that the age that a baby learns to sit up, stand up, and walk varies greatly.
    “Temperament and weight,” he said, “have a great deal to do with it. For instance, a fat baby may not have much of a yen to get moving very fast.”
    Didn’t I know it! I was such a fat baby, I had barely reached the sitting up stage when it was time for me to go to camp. My parents had to take me there in a U-Haul. As a kid, I ate so many sweets and lost so many teeth at once that the tooth fairy at our house had a hernia.
    I was determined that Melissa would grow up with first rate eating habits, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. Once I prepared a great meal for her: lamp chops, spinach, mashed potatoes, ice cream, and she wouldn’t touch it. Boy, was I upset! If that kid only knew how many hours it took to stuff that into the bottle.
    In spite of everything I am proud to say that Melissa has grown up with a wonderful healthy appetite. To get across the notion that eating can be enjoyable, in my house, we just say, “Eat some more, kid. It’s good. Mommy didn’t make it.” The way I figure it, if women were meant to slave over a hot stove, they would have been given aluminum hands.

    Pears and Caviar

    Pear halves, cored (allow 1/2 pear per person)
    Beluga caviar (large grain, grey)
    Lettuce leaves
    Lemon wedges

    Method: Poach pear halves until barely tender in small amount of water. Cool and drain. Sprinkle each pear half with sugar. Fill cavity of each with a mound of caviar. Arrange each pear half on a bed of lettuce. Decorate with a wedge of lemon.
    Serve as hors d’oeuvre or as a first course for a luncheon.
    When fresh pears are not in season, substitute canned pears and omit sugar.

    Joan Rivers Photo:

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